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What’s stopping Pope Francis going to Moscow?

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

There is one man who always keeps the Holy Father waiting. Three times in a row now he has arrived conspicuously late for a private audience at the Vatican, in breach of diplomatic protocol. When he first visited Pope Francis in 2013, he was 50 minutes late. On his second visit, it was a full hour. Last week, he again arrived an hour behind schedule.

Perhaps Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, has been particularly unlucky with Rome’s traffic. Or maybe he is sending a signal that he, rather than the Pope, is the more influential figure. Russia is, after all, millions of times larger than Vatican City, and despite the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, it remains a formidable military power.

Last Thursday’s talks lasted 55 minutes, an unusually long time for a meeting between the Pope and a head of state. Both sides seemed pleased with the encounter. But it was clear that Putin had decided to keep Francis waiting in another significant respect: he did not invite the Pope to visit Russia.

Francis has made no secret of his desire to become the first pontiff to travel to Moscow. Ever since his election, he has devoted notable energy to cultivating relations with the Eastern Orthodox churches. His foreign trips have increasingly focused on predominantly Orthodox countries. This year alone, for example, he has visited Romania, Bulgaria and North Macedonia.

But Francis still awaits an invitation to the heartland of Russian Orthodoxy, which accounts for approximately half of the world’s more than 200 million Orthodox believers, making it by far the largest branch of the Orthodox Church. In 2016, Francis became the first pope to meet the Patriarch of Moscow, in the incongruous setting of Havana airport. A papal invitation to Russia would have been the next logical step. But three years on, there is no sign that it will be issued.

This is all the more curious given the remarkable alignment between the Holy See and Russia on major foreign policy questions. Both, for example, maintain fairly cordial relations with Iran. Both are helping to rebuild the shattered Christian communities of Syria. Both are courting China. And both are reluctant to hasten the departure of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Both, in other words, are resisting US hegemony in international relations – albeit for different reasons.

But there is one point of contention that explains why Putin hasn’t yet invited the Pope to Russia. It is Ukraine. Ever since the “breadbasket of Europe” gained independence in 1991, Moscow has tried to maintain its influence over not only the country’s politics and economy but also its religious affairs. Russia has protested relentlessly to the Vatican over the alleged misbehaviour of local Catholics belonging to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. Russia now accuses Ukrainian Catholics of supporting the creation of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which has declared its allegiance to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, rather than Moscow.

It is therefore in Russia’s interests to ensure that the Vatican retains tight control over the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It seeks to do this by dangling an invitation to Moscow in front of the Pope, but then snatching it away before he is able to grasp it. It is a powerful source of leverage that Russia probably intends to retain for as long as possible.

There is little Pope Francis can do except wait patiently. He cannot build on his meeting with the Patriarch of Moscow as he would like to, because the Russian Orthodox Church seems beholden to the Kremlin on ecumenical matters. The Pope’s best bet lies in building a personal rapport with Putin, in the hope of persuading him of the merits of a papal visit to Russia. That is perhaps why Francis has received Putin so frequently compared to other world leaders, and why he is willing to overlook the President’s habitual lateness.

It is a strange situation when ecumenical progress is determined not by Church leaders but by a head of state. But then the relationship between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church is unique. A pope can either complain about these political constraints or make the best of them. Francis has chosen the latter approach. If he has to wait for years for the next modest step on the path to Christian unity, then so be it.